Culture

The Politics of 'Roseanne' Are Recognition and Empathy

Its radical premise: Recognizing diverse viewpoints can in fact showcase the things we share.

Big reversal.

Photographer: Robert Trachtenberg/ABC via Getty Images

Before Wednesday evening, I’d never seen a single episode of “Roseanne.” But in the interest of cultural commentary, I cranked up my ABC.com app to see what all the fuss -- and the extraordinarily high ratings -- was about. Here’s what I learned.

1) It’s knowing. From the moment Dan Conner (John Goodman) wakes with a start, we’re in a familiar world rarely seen on TV. His face is covered by a plastic mask with a breathing tube. The show assumes the audience recognizes what it is: a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine to treat sleep apnea. Back when the original  “Roseanne” was on the air, from 1988 to 1997, I’d never heard of sleep apnea, which afflicts an estimated one in 15 Americans, particularly overweight men over 40 like Dan. Twenty years later, I have friends and relatives who sleep in similar get-ups. It’s a common phenomenon in American life. But you wouldn’t know that from watching TV. 

2) It’s funny. The writing is equally knowing in its satire of the foibles of what sociologist Elizabeth Currid-Halkett calls the “aspirational class” and reverse snobs call “coastal elites” -- even though some of them apparently live in Lanford, Illinois. “I brought you some ionized water in glass bottles,” says the polished professional who’s considering Roseanne’s daughter Becky as a surrogate mother. “Thank you,” says Becky (Alicia Goranson). “I love water!”

But what makes the show is the talented cast, especially Goodman. “This is so unfair. You’re ruining my life! You all suck!” shouts grand-daughter Harris (Emma Kenney) as she storms out after being told she has to babysit her brother. Dan laughs. “I ain’t seen that movie in 20 years. Ah, the classics really do hold up.” The writing is fine, but it’s Goodman’s delivery and expressions that make you laugh.

3) It’s loving. Family sit-coms are about family. Dan and Roseanne Conner (Roseanne Barr) are a sixtysomething couple still demonstrably in love with each other. At the core of the show is the Conners’ loving, protective, and blunt-spoken attitude toward their kids and grandkids, along with the tensions that arise from individuals’ quirks and foibles.

Nine-year-old grandson Mark’s propensity for “colors that pop” makes him determined to wear a sparkly black skirt and plaid scarf to his new school. Nobody in the family cares how he dresses at home -- “God did not give me this big a head to hold a narrow mind,” says Dan -- but they worry he’ll get beat up. Instead Mark (Ames McNamara) is sent home for showing a bully a pocket knife Dan gave him. (It was a peace offering/bribe, not a threat.) When Mark tells his mother Darlene (Sara Gilbert) that the bully said he was weird, she says that’s ridiculous. But when he says no one played with him, she takes a long pause and admits the truth: “Here’s the thing. You are weird. I’m weird. This whole family’s really weird. So you’ve just got to hang in there until people figure out that weird is cool.”

4) It’s part of a big political/cultural trend. The show garnered enormous publicity because both Roseannes, the character and the comedian, voted for Donald Trump. The first episode has great fun with the contrast between Roseanne and her sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf, aka Sheldon’s mom on “The Big Bang Theory”). “Not only did she vote for the worst person on Earth, but she was a real jerk about it too,” Roseanne says. “And now she’s just ridiculous.” When Jackie comes by to drive Darlene to a job interview, her daughter assures Roseanne that everything will be fine. “She promised she’d get along and knowing the both of you, I’m guessing you’re the one keeping this feud alive.” Darlene opens the door to reveal Aunt Jackie wearing a pussy hat, a bright pink shirt reading “Nasty Woman,” and a just-try-me expression. “What’s up, Deplorable?” she says to her sister. In the biggest reversal since “The Americans” made protagonists of Soviet agents, Trump voters are the viewpoint characters and Hollywood-style liberals the Other. 

But “Roseanne” isn’t a drama. It is a family sit-com, with the fundamental sweetness that typifies that genre. Its politics are the politics of recognition and empathy. It belongs not with Fox News but with ABC’s other family comedies, including “Black-ish,” which enjoyed a big ratings boost from its powerful, new lead-in, and “Fresh Off the Boat.”

Most Americans aren’t blue-collar midwestern whites, affluent West Coast blacks, or Taiwanese immigrants living in Orlando. But most do have families and enjoy a laugh. The radical premise of “Roseanne” -- and of these family sit-coms -- is that recognizing diverse viewpoints and voices, including those that don’t assume that what we take for granted is the norm, can in fact showcase the things we share. What we have in common is at least as important as what divides us. And as Darlene counsels Mark, from someone’s perspective we’re all weird.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Virginia Postrel at vpostrel@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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